Trust your gut not market research – guest blog by Dan Vivian

Today’s post is a guest blog by Dan Vivian, kindred spirit and one half of brother duo otherwise known as The Vivian Partnership. They run Oomph seminars which we love because they are all about generating ideas that excite and inspire.

The next Oomph Seminar is on the 16th April and will look at the vital and delicate topic of behaviour change. How much can we nudge, cajole and order individuals and groups to alter their actions to be more sustainable?  For more information and to sign up click here

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Trust Your Gut not Market Research

Dan Vivian, Vivian Partnership

When I was in the big bad world of advertising I produced some successful commercials and some not so successful. Normally  one knew which ones were going be great, but you didn’t know quite why. We researched them all but that didn’t really help us to predict success any more than our gut instinct. But we researched them all the same.

Bully for you I hear you say. And what has this got to do with the world of sustainability? It comes down to some of the emerging themes from neuroscience and behavioural psychology. These were presented very engagingly by Professor Paul Dolan at last week’s Ecobuild. Where he stated that market research is a waste of money. Alleluia I thought. But why is this and what are the implications for sustainability?

The basis for Professor Dolan’s ideas is that most of our decisions (and therefore most of our behaviours) are unconscious. It is part of our basic make up that we don’t have to agonise over most actions, we just do them. They are effortless, automatic and unconscious. We therefore conserve as much of our energy and brain function for the most important decisions. Our brains try to make our life as easy as possible.

This is a nice thought that we can drift through life with our subconscious brains making all the right decisions for us. But sadly it also means that it is very difficult to establish new, sustainable behaviours. In a world of plenty, the unconscious brain makes us fill our boots, giving a very plausible explanation for the obesity epidemic. It also points the way to solutions.

We must accept human nature and not try to change it. If we want to establish more sustainable behaviours we need to work with our subconscious. On the one side this should be a good thing, because by targeting the subconscious, limbic (reptilian) brain we could achieve mainstream change across populations without much input. Basically the “no-brainer” choices in our lives need to be the ones with sustainable outcomes.

Going back to my advertising days it reminds me of one particular commercial, with a particularly big budget, that sailed through pre-testing. When asked to rate the commercial, respondents gave it incredibly high marks – it was a sure fire winner. Once it was put on air however the impact was miserable and it was taken off, never to be seen again. The conscious questioning in research masked the true response to the ad, which was only played out in the subconscious once it was seen in living rooms across the country.

We should therefore not be surprised by the choices people make. We cannot “sell” the sustainable options consciously, particularly through visions of doom and gloom, but must appeal to our more basic emotions, making the choice easy, simple and attractive. Then habits will be formed and established and, importantly, attitudes changed.

We, sustainability professionals, need to do the hard (conscious) thinking for the programs we wish to establish. For change to happen it must be easy; yet the corollory of this is that the sustainability community must use every conscious neurone to create the conditions for change. It is not up to the mainstream to do this work for us. We can consult and listen to them to form the context but we need to recognise that it is emotional, unconscious triggers that will drive behaviour and sometimes we need to trust our gut, not market research.

Have a look at previous blogs that relate to emotional selling and an impression from EcoBuild in 2012, an interesting contrast to the heightened optimism this year.

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